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Listening to:Sufi music and Gregorian chant

Reading:Web pages about Dervishes and Gregorian chant

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Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003 - 12:58 a.m.

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Whirling Gregorian Dervishes

This is the second entry tonight... if you would like to read the first more gruesome topic, click here.

Tonight I went to see "Le Cercle de l'Extase" at Theatre Saint-Denis. It is a world premiere performance (or rather an added show to accommodate the demand from the show last night.) featuring "Les Derviches tourneurs d'Alep" and "Les Chanteurs gregoriens" de la Schola Saint-Gregoire, Montreal. It is part of the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montreal.

I am so glad I bought a ticket. It is sometimes good to go by oneself to shows, as you can still get a ticket for a seat you can see from! The place was jampacked... there were only a few seats under the rafters not taken.

What a treat. Imagine six monks doing Gregorian chant to your left on stage. A band of eight arab musicians and one singer to your right. In the center, four malawi Dervishes from Syria. It was an experiment, and I would say a seamless melding of, two disparate spiritual cultures. The audience was held rapt as an arabic flute wafted over the Gregorian chanting, then the Gregorian bell rang out over the Arabic singing, violins and voices, tambourine and harmonics wove in out and around eachother.

One moment we were transported to the depths of a gothic cathedral, with cold walls of grey stone and solemn voices invoking God, and the next, gypsylike melodies wafted us to colorful dancers, tents and camels in the hot sun.

The Dervishes, and yes, they are whirling, came out for the last song of each of the sets. Three would hold their skirts up like so many brides walking up the stairs holding their white trains, and arrange themselves in a triangle, dark coats over their shoulders. The fourth, dressed in dark pants, stood in the middle back and started to slowly revolve as the others would sway first to one side then the other, dipping to the music, looking like three flexible stems bowing in the wind, holding their hands up near their chests.

then the music would change from slow and rhythmic to fast and toetapping with sinuous melodies. The dark coats were shed. The three would start twirling, at first looking like nothing so much as morning glory blossoms twisted in a spiral as their skirts wound around them. They slowly picked up speed until they were legless tops spinning in the center of pure white tissue. Round and round and round in a clockwise manner. Their arms up, then over their shoulders, then crossing their waists, then up again. They looked like human jewelry box dolls. Round and round.

While they spun, the singer ululated his song, and the fourth Dervish walked solemnly around them and between their skirts swinging an incense burner of frankincense and myrrh (I believe) that looked (and smelled) like nothing so much as a Roman Catholic rite. The overlap is striking.

In their information pamphlets they say they were not looking to find the similarities in their common sacred motions and voices, but rather celebrate their particuliarities and differences. To point out how wonderfully disparate are the expressions of human awe and reverence.

It was a totally moving show. A meeting of cultures. And it stirred the people. The time passed so so so quickly, at the same time as it was timeless. It seemed like only 4 interminable songs to me, though the program says 21 before the entracte, and 5 after. They melded so perfectly together into a meditative piece that flowed. When they finished, the applause and standing ovation were instantaneous. An occasion.

I will put some links to sites I have found about the Gregorian monks and the Whirling Dervishes. The first is some beautiful intimate photos of Dervishes in the United States, taken by the same photographer as the burnt boy in the previous entry.

The second is a few photos, information about the Dervishes in Turkey, and the saying that they read (in French) tonight at the show before the lights went up. I shall write it here:

Come, come, come again
whoever you may be,
come again, even though
You may be a pagan or a fire worshipper.
Our center is not one of despair.
Come again, even if you
may have violated your vows
a hundred times
come again

That is a quote from Mevlana, 1207-1273, whose followers were the whirling dervishes. He believed that all religions are more or less truth. Sounds like a good place to start.

In case you're interested, here is a site about The Life and Spiritual Milieu of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Here is a site that describes the whirling dance and the meaning of its different parts, including a warning: it would be HIGHLY INSULTING to use dervish music to bellydance to. Take note! Finally, Google images of Whirling Dervishes. Enjoy!

Here is a page of the Festival du Monde Arab about the show tonight. It is only in French, but has some photos. It gives details of the dancers, singers, chanters, etc. For the anglophones, here is the review in The Montreal Mirror this week, that inspired me to go. Here is the website of the Montreal Schola Saint-Gregoire, Gregorian Chant Ensemble for some English information.

Apparently there are over 3000 compositions named after Pope Gregory (590-604), who developed this sort of Roman Catholic chanting of prayer. If you have MIDI or MP3 technology on your computer, you can hear some chants via these links. Look here to be blown away by the illumination of chant notation of centuries past. This is another early 16th century illuminated piece of sheet music. It is too dark to read the notes, but the border art is breathtaking. Imagine: this is a page of handdrawn sheet music, not a printed piece, not a canvas painting for a wall.

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previous meanderings - future past

Goodbye Michael. May your next life be kinder to you. - Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009
Taking Care of Your Cows - Thursday, Jun. 25, 2009
Saint Joseph robs the cradle and eats spaghetti - Sunday, Jun. 14, 2009
sticky notes and broken irises - Friday, Jun. 12, 2009
The FOODCOMMANDER - Monday, Jun. 08, 2009


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